Can civil society help people take back control?

It's time for a new British constitution.

Alex Jacobs
7 March 2019, 4.40pm
The Lord Chancellor handing the speech to the Queen
Roger Harris/House of Lords 2015

“We are in the white-water rapids of a political crisis taking constitutional form,” Anthony Barnett opened his speech at last week’s conference on Remaking the UK Constitution. “Everyone is saying the system is broken.”

A hundred constitutional experts agreed, convened in Oxford by the Bonavero Institute of Human rights, the Constitution Unit at UCL and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.

Britain’s political crisis was an ever-present backdrop. The country is not working well enough for too many people. Now we are lurching to our biggest constitutional change in generations, uncertain, divided and ill prepared. The poor stay poor while the rich get rich. Our politics is falling apart.

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This conference was about our constitution: the distribution of power and national identity. It closed with a resounding call to action.

Our political crisis is a constitutional crisis: how the power to govern is shared out and how we define ourselves. It was a root cause of Brexit and now Brexit deepens the trough.

The last twenty years have seen huge constitutional reform in the UK. But it has been piecemeal, without an overarching vision. A lot works very well. But this is unfinished business.

Too much power is concentrated in London in what looks and feels like an old boys club. The devolution settlement between the four nations is unbalanced and unsustainable. Scottish independence is visibly on the horizon, as is Irish reunification and the threat of violence in Northern Ireland. Local government is atomised, rather than the backbone of citizens’ democratic engagement. Regional devolution is patchy at best and lacks a guiding framework. The two dominating parties are fracturing, while First Past the Post entrenches their grip on power. Is it any wonder people voted to take back control?

Brexit deepens the trouble, removing the basis for common government across the four nations as well as human rights protections, while centralising repatriated powers in London.

For thirty years and more, campaigners have called for a written constitution. They haven’t got far, even with prime ministerial backing in 2007. Success would depend on massive government commitment and resolving all these major issues first. Even then, written constitutions don’t answer everything and depend a great deal on convention.

Citizens Assemblies and similar approaches have blossomed recently. All over the world, they are bringing people together to debate and solve complex governance problems. In Ireland, practice has famously built up over seven years to create national break-throughs on areas as sensitive as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But they are no silver bullet. In 2011, a Citizens Council wrote a new constitution for Iceland. It has still not been adopted by parliament. These initiatives need real political commitment and careful management.

National identity emerged as a second theme.

We heard constant concerns about imperial attitudes in Anglo-British government. The British government is seen to hoard power, behave high handedly and believe in British exceptionalism. England needs to become a more normal nation, decolonising its own mind.

Many Scots have already moved on. We heard about the contrast between the EU’s protection of Irish interests in the Brexit negotiations and London’s disregard of Scottish views. The same theme emerged from Welsh and Irish speakers. Unionists risk doing more harm than nationalists, by failing to recognise the truth about current relations between the four nations.

The English question has never been properly addressed. There is no English representative body and no reliable sense of English identity. This fundamentally limits balanced devolution and a modern constitution. There are very few spaces to debate and develop a broad idea of modern Englishness, decisively moving beyond nostalgia for British imperialism.

So what’s to be done?

We heard from inspiring initiatives, for instance on a new devolutionary settlement, proportional representation, a citizens convention and Scotland’s leadership on human rights. And of course, there are others.

There was appetite to go further. Our national crisis requires leadership, in short supply from our formal politicians. Others will have to step up. Civil society could act now to build real public momentum and shape the debate. The conference closed with a call for practical proposals.

One idea was deliberative work across all four nations on bills of rights, building on Scotland’s initiative. Another was for a national effort to generate mass public engagement about how power is distributed and momentum for change. It could promote totemic questions like “what should replace the House of Lords?”

The times call for more. More action by more people, with more collaboration to tackle these core problems at national scale.

As our Scots friends say, now’s the day and now’s the hour. The truth is, we’re all suffering from Westminster and Whitehall’s imperial habits. Can we help citizens really take back control, from London as much as Brussels? And help London let go at the same time?

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